The Never-Ending Tour: On the Road with Brian Regan
Find the most jaded, bitter, resentful comic you can think of, and chances are even he likes Brian Regan. Everyone does.
Regan has been performing in 100 cities each year since 2005 through his non-stop theater tour, making him one of the most successful touring comedians in the country – a feat even more impressive when you consider he’s done it with scant film and TV exposure.
His everyman persona appeals to audiences of all kinds, and his clever joke-writing endears him to some of the best comics in the business, including Patton Oswalt, who has said Regan is the best standup comic working today.
I recently had the chance to talk to Regan while on break from the first half of his 2014 North American tour. We chatted about being a comic’s comic, helping young comedians, and his growing interest in a TV series.
How many shows do you have left on the tour? It’s been going on since what – the beginning of the year almost?
Well, the tour is never-ending. It just goes on and on and on, so we just keep on rolling second halves of the tour. Like we’ll do six months’ worth of tour dates and then we’ll do another six months’ worth of tour dates. Some people have a tour that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Maybe that’s the smarter way to do it. Mine has no end, it just keeps going.
So what do you like to do when you’re on the road going from show to show. I mean, you’ve been doing it for so long and been to so many cities, I was just wondering how a guy like you keeps himself entertained?
Well, it’s weird. I have like one hobby, and I’m horrible at it. I like to play golf, and for people who like to play golf, I might be the worst golfer on the face of the earth. [Laughs.] You’d think I’d pick a hobby or something that I’m actually pretty decent at, but I’m not smart enough to do that. So that’s one thing I like to do, and I do live in Las Vegas so not that often, but occasionally, I’ll go play some blackjack. But I’m not at a Ben Affleck-level where I can count cards. I’ll never get kicked out of casinos.
Yeah, that’s amazing, right? That guy’s got some kind of mind to be able to figure out how to count cards like that.
I don’t understand the rule that you’re not allowed to do something in your head. I completely am baffled by that. That somebody can come up to you and go, “You’re not allowed to do whatever you’re doing inside your brain.” It’s like, how do you know what I’m doing in my brain? “We can tell. We can tell by what you’re doing.” So, it just seems crazy to me.
[Laughs.] You do theaters pretty much exclusively, right?
Yeah, I’ve been doing theaters for about eight or nine years now. For the last year and the year before, just to re-experience it during the summer, I did a handful of comedy clubs, but this summer I’m not going to be doing that. This summer I’m just gonna do some theaters and get back to the normal theater grind.
Tell me about the club experience. What did you like? What didn’t you like? It’s obviously way different than performing in front of a couple thousand people in a theater.
Well, I have such fond feelings about comedy clubs because that’s where I started. I did them for many years, and I was fortunate enough to get to a point where I was playing good comedy clubs and that sort of thing. But there’s something to be said too for performing in a theater where the focus is sharper. Comedy clubs, as great as they are, there can be some distractions going on. You can hear a blender in the background and a table of friends interested in Frank’s birthday. They’re near comedy, and a guy in the front is eating a cheeseburger that as soon as it’s placed in front of him, the cheeseburger becomes the headliner until the cheeseburger’s gone and then he looks back at you like, “Okay, back to you, clown.” So you have to be like an MC at a circus in addition to being a comedian when you perform at a comedy club.
So when you’re working on new material, are you doing it at your theater shows? Are those your workout rooms in a sense?
Yeah, when I first started doing theater for the first six months, I was reluctant to do anything new because it’s like you have all these people sitting in these red velvet seats, and once people are sitting in red velvet seats, they’re not allowed to be experimented on. After a while, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to continue to grow unless I throw some new stuff in here,” so I just realized that the theater’s really a new different comedy club, and that they can also be venues where you can play around and experiment. I’m a little bit more careful in a theater environment than I am in a comedy club. I make sure I bookend new stuff with strong stuff. So I know I’m gonna get a good laugh, and then I’ll try something new and if that doesn’t work, I’ll go into something that I know is strong. Whereas in a comedy club, you could maybe do new things in a row and see how they shake out before you get back to something that is more polished.
How do you know when you’ve got a joke as complete as you would like it to be? Because you know, in other models, you’ll have comics who will do a theater tour and they’ll keep all the good stuff for a big special that they’ll record and release, and then eventually stop doing those jokes. But you have just a perpetual tour as you talked about, so when do you know a joke has run its course, and you’re ready to move on?
Well, what’s interesting for me is that I don’t really earmark anything for retirement as much as I earmark stuff to be new. I always like to keep adding to my show, and when you come up with something new, something by default has to fall from the wayside, and just subconsciously you tend to release jokes that you’ve been doing for a few years. You subconsciously get bored with them and you find that you’re doing them less and less and replacing them with newer things, and for me it’s like every year to two years I end up with a new hour of stuff. Just this gradual “in with the new, out with the old” kind of thing. So if somebody were to see me one night, and then they were to see me the next night, they would probably see 95% of the same show. But if you just kept coming night after night after night, after a year to a year and a half, you’d go, “Wait a second. Now all those jokes I heard a year ago are gone.”
Were you a student of standup? Did you ever read books about it, or take voice lessons or stuff like that to work on your craft? Some people it just comes to naturally.
Yeah, I’m very interested in standup comedy. I don’t know if I’m as much of a student as maybe some others are, but I’m currently reading a book about Richard Pryor. I think when you talk about standup comedians, he might arguably be the best standup comedian who ever lived. And it’s interesting reading his biography and the influences he’s had on the comedy world. And also, you can’t help that whenever you’re watching a comedian on TV, whether you’re listening to somebody on Sirius XM, you tend to analyze it. On one level, you’re enjoying someone’s comedy but on another level you’re analyzing it and saying “Wow, that’s pretty tight, that’s pretty strong, that’s pretty funny.” Or, you might listen to something and go, “Eh, I don’t know if that’s as good as it can be.” But I’m sure that’s the same for any craft. I’m sure baseball players can watch other baseball players and some might go, “Oh that’s a great pitcher” and “Wow, that guy’s not so good.”
You’re one of the rare comics that has mass appeal – everyone loves you – in addition to being a comic’s comic, because you’re pretty much universally revered there as well. Marc Maron loves you and he hates everybody so you know you’re doing something right. Is that important to you to have the respect of your peers?
It means everything to me. I also want to make regular audiences laugh, but I’ve always felt like I had the kind of act that encompasses everybody. I want the audience to laugh but I also want comedians to laugh and like it. Some comedians play to the audience and could care less whether comedians find what they do interesting, and some comedians who play to the back of the room which means they’re more interested in the comedians than they are in the audience, and I like to cast a wide net and kind of have everybody involved. But the fact that comedians like what I do means everything to me. When your peers like you, it’s a nice feather to put in your cap. And I don’t know why I used that as an analogy. Now you’re picturing me wearing a cap with feathers in it. [Laughs.]
Is that difficult to balance, appealing to both the back of the room and the audience? As you’re writing jokes are you consciously thinking about both audiences?
Yes. I don’t know. There’s a term called “hack comedy” and I think instinctively, I try to avoid that. Anytime you kind of hit on something where you go, “Well, anybody can think of this,” I try to stay away from that. Even though I want my subject matter to be incredibly mundane, I want the jokes themselves to be unique and interesting and different within those worlds. So it’s like a second tightrope, you know. I want the subject matter usually to just be incredibly bland, where on the surface you might go, “Oh, who cares, what is this all about?” But then trying to find peculiar stuff within those worlds. In fact, I read a preview one time of a show, and I don’t know if the writer “just didn’t get it” or didn’t really look that much into it, but he said, “Brian Regan, who talks about food, airline travel, and doctor visits, is going to be playing at the nearby venue.” [Laughs.] And I remember reading that thinking, ‘Man, I’m falling asleep reading about myself! I don’t know who would read that and go, “Honey, we have got to check this guy, he’s exploring our favorite subjects for humor!”
[Laughs.] That is great.
And I thought, well, he’s not wrong. I guess that’s what I’m talking about, but I’d like to think there’s something interesting within those worlds.
Right. There are only a finite number of topics you can talk about that everyone can relate to.
Right. If all of the subject matter is unique and untouched, then what are you left with? You’re going to be talking about the polar icecaps on Mars. The only thing left that hasn’t been explored comedically.
As someone who has been in the business for a long time, what would you say about the talent level today compared to when you were first starting out? The people who open for you, do you feel like they’re stronger than in years past?
Comedy is an art form just like music. Music is ever-evolving and so is comedy. So, there are comedians today that are doing great things, but I also think some of the older comics are doing some great things too. I try not to be somebody who points and says, “This kind is good and this kind is bad.” You know what I mean? “This era did good comedy, and this era does bad comedy.” It’s just all from different eras. So, I don’t know. I just remember watching The Tonight Show a long time ago and some older comedian came out and did his thing and then he sat down at the panel and was just ranting and raving about the comedians today. You know, the young kids today. And I was one of the young kids today! I felt like I was being put on. He’s like, “They come out here, they got six minutes, they can’t back it up, they’ve got nothing else to say.” And I remember going, “Jeez. Don’t ever be that guy, Brian, don’t ever be that guy.” So I’m careful to spread the love around.
You do bring openers on the road with you a lot, right? Do you use the same people or try to mix it up?
Yeah, I always have someone that does like 20 minutes in front of me. I mix it up. I have like four orfive people that I use regularly, but I’m starting to introduce people just to shake things up. Just recently I started using Joe Zimmerman, and I used a woman named Jackie Kashian – Jackie Kashian has done Conan O’Brien, and Joe Zimmerman has done Craig Ferguson. It’s just fun for me to watch people doing things that I’m not familiar with. They both do a great job in addition to the comedians that I work with more often. So, yeah, I’m trying to bring some new people in.
Joe and Jackie are both great. Where do you find them? Are they brought to you?
Jackie Kashian, I was going to be doing a California run, and I just Googled California comedians because I’m not in the comedy clubs as much as other people. Her video popped up, and I watched one, and I was like, “Okay, I liked that,” and then I watched another and another, and I was like, “She’s got an interesting take on things, man.” Talking about her dad being a salesperson. This is very unique perspective, and I found it very funny and very different, so I wanted to go with her. As far as Joe Zimmerman, I had met him before when he was in a group called The Beards of Comedy and I was performing up in, I don’t know, Yakima, Washington or something. When I finished my show, we went over to this comedy club, and the Beards were performing and he was one of them. So I met him then, but then about a year later, my tour manager told me that he was interested in seeing if he could open for me. I watched a few of his videos and liked what I saw and brought him into the fold.
It’s cool giving people who aren’t as big a name yet opportunities.
Years ago, I was fortunate enough to open for Jerry Seinfeld, and it was such an amazing experience for me. First of all, he picked me. You know what I mean? He knew me from New York, and the fact that he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to open for him on some dates just meant the world to me. That was my first time performing in theaters. Those people, they weren’t there to see me, they were there to see Jerry Seinfeld. It was just a fantastic experience, and I try to keep that in mind and say, “Hey, maybe there are some people out there who are beginning to get their chops comedically.” I’d like to feel like, I don’t know, maybe this can give you a leg up. Perform in a theater and see what it’s like, get your name out there a little bit. It’s nice to help other people.
Sure, pay it forward. So you did the whole New York thing for a while?
Yeah, yeah I started at a club in Ft. Lauderdale. I worked there for like three years, and then I went out on the road and was basically a road act for a few years. And then I decided, well, I have some gold here, so I decided to move to New York City to try to take it to the next level. New York was just a great experience for me because that’s when I learned the difference between getting laughs and getting good laughs. I started realizing that the only comedians that are making it in this New York City deal are people who are incredibly unique. Everybody has to have their own vision, their own voice. So, I think my act prior to that had some stuff that was interesting, but also had some stuff that would get laughs, but wasn’t – to me they were “so what?” jokes. So I realized the only way I’m going to make it in New York is to make sure that I’m doing the stuff that nobody else is doing. I tried to hone in on that type of joke and to write that way. But I was still working on the road at that time, and a lot of the New York guys were only working in New York. So by default, I had to build an act that not only worked in New York, but worked in Peoria, Illinois. So I think it was great for me just to see both sides of it, and I think that’s one reason why maybe I can get laughs from audiences as well as the comedians in the back of the room. I understand both sides of the equation.
You mentioned Seinfeld. Your episode on Comedians in Cars was great.
Ah, thank you. Thank you. I really enjoyed doing it. When I did that one, there weren’t any on the internet yet. There wasn’t anything to look at to go, “What is this?” And now, other comedians that are doing it, they have a reference point. But for me, it was just like, he literally comes and pick you up and you’re like, “Uhhh, what is going on here.”
You’ve always been adamant about focusing on standup, and I just wondered if you’ve changed your mind about getting into TV. You’ve accomplished so much in standup now, are there any sort of next goals for your career?
I would love to do a TV show, and whether it’s on TV or the internet, it doesn’t really matter to me. I would love to do something, but I would want it to be about my comedy and how I think as a comedian. I’m not motivated by stardom or celebrity, I’m motivated by the comedy. I’ve tried over the years to get involved with things, TV-wise, but maybe because I didn’t want to go down the normal road, maybe it’s been a little bit more challenging for me. I didn’t want to just be plugged into somebody else’s creation and go, “Hey, these guys thought of an idea, you’d be the perfect fit here.” You know, be a sitcom dad. I’m not denouncing that, that’s great for many people. But for me, I want to be at the table coming up with the comedy. I don’t want to be in another room rehearsing my lines. I want to be part of the comedy. Those are the kinds of things Seinfeld was fortunate to get, where he had creative say in his show. If I could get a show like that, then I’d love to. The world isn’t set up that way, especially out in Hollywood. They have the way they like to do things, and so I like the autonomy of the comedian. I like being able to think of what to say, then choose it, edit it myself. If I got a show, I know there would be other cooks in the kitchen, but I want to be in the kitchen too! Don’t kick me out of the kitchen!
Phil Davidson writes about, performs and produces comedy.
Tour dates for the second leg of Brian Regan’s 2014 North American tour is available at www.brianregan.com